As a hip-hop-obsessed Jewish kid growing up in Oakland in the 1980s and ’90s, Moshe Kasher knows a little something about cultural appropriation, which was the topic of last night’s debut episode of his new Comedy Central talk show, Problematic with Moshe Kasher. Like A&E’s Black and White, on which hosts Sherrod Small and Christian Finnegan conducted awkward, necessary, and often funny conversations about race in America, Problematic invites guests and audience members to take part in deliberately uncomfortable, and hopefully entertaining, discussions about controversial issues.
Black-ish creator Kenya Barris has already demonstrated his willingness to “go there” (see: Black-ish, and also this much-needed public shutdown of the “diversity” question), so it wasn’t surprising to see him on last night’s premiere. Barris, whose own family was the inspiration for the Johnson clan on Black-ish, described growing up in Inglewood, broke, as did his wife — “she’s mixed,” he added, “so she was kind of white-broke.” (“I’m Jewish, raised on welfare,” Kasher interjected. “Very, very rare. If you catch me I’ll grant you a wish but I’m very tricky.”)
Barris continued: “We got married and had kids and I looked around and they were not what I remember little black kids being. They were a bit more black-ish. But then all their little white friends who would be at the house were a little bit more black. They were a little bit black-ish, too.” The difference between his generation and his children’s, he said, is that now, the fact that white kids like to “dress black” and listen to rap music is totally out in the open.
Some degree of cultural appropriation is inevitable in this country, and Barris and Kasher nimbly tease out the question of when it’s offensive to adopt another culture’s styles and traditions, and when it’s not. Cultural appropriation, Barris said, is “a borrowing” of such traditions, and is fine as long as the appropriator is fully aware of what it is she’s wearing or doing or saying, and what it means in context. He explained:
That’s not to say you shouldn’t wear cornrows. That’s not to say you shouldn’t wear a [Native American] headdress. Acknowledge it. You know what I’m saying? Acknowledge it, that’s all I’m saying. That’s the part of what makes America great — we’re greatest when we’re sort of mixed in, when we understand and acknowledge each culture has something that we bring to what this place is.
“It’s not really about the cornrows, it’s not about the Native American headdress. It’s everything that happened underneath the cornrows and the headdress for the last 500 years,” Kasher summed up. “The issue underneath the issue is always the power dynamic.”